In a 2011 YouTube video, criminal defense attorney Geoffrey Saltzstein pitched himself to prospective clients as a straight shooter who would always treat them “with the respect they deserve.”
“What you need is someone who is going to talk straight to you,” said Saltzstein, who was employed at the time as an associate at a small shop in St. Louis Park, the Appelman Law Firm. “I talk straight, and I’m honest and upfront with all my clients.”
But in a per curiam decision disbarring Saltzstein on Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court cast the 39-year old Edina lawyer in a far less flattering light — that of a slick operator who stole tens of thousands of dollars from his clients while they were behind bars and then ignored them.
In addition to misappropriating more than $67,000 from two prison inmates, the court found that Saltzstein had violated “a wide array” of the rules of professional conduct in his dealings with at least four other clients.
Those violations, the court said, included “a pattern of neglect and failure to communicate with clients, entering into improper fee agreements with several clients, and failing to place clients’ funds in trust and properly account for those funds.”
In the case of one jailed client, according to the court, Saltzstein didn’t just steal the client’s money; he also failed to file the brief the money was set aside to pay for, which caused the client to forfeit his appeal.
The court also found that Saltzstein didn’t deliver on a promise to pay $38,000 in premiums on a life insurance policy on behalf of the same incarcerated client.
According to Avery Appelman, Saltzstein worked at his firm for about five years.
In a phone interview, Appelman said was impressed by Saltzstein when they met, saying he came across as “smart, bright, and exceptionally personable.” At the time, Saltzstein, a 2009 graduate of the University of St. Thomas School of Law, was clerking for Hennepin County District Court Judge Philip Bush.
About a year later, Appelman hired Saltzstein.
He said his first inkling that something was amiss came in January 2015 when a client sued the firm, demanding the proceeds of a civil settlement that he had entrusted to Saltzstein while serving out a felony sentence.
Although Saltzstein deposited the $28,000 in a mutual fund, according to the court, he later made a series of unauthorized withdrawals and, in the end, only $1.75 remained in the account.
Appelman said he terminated Saltzstein the same day he was served with the lawsuit, which was later settled confidentially.
“I felt betrayed. I felt humiliated and embarrassed,” said Appelman. “I did what I could to make things right with the clients. But it became abundantly clear that the person I knew Geoff to be is not who he is.”
After conducting a forensic accounting and uncovering additional evidence of malfeasance, Appelman said he submitted a complaint to the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility.
He praised Bing Tuong, the assistant director at the OLPR who lead the disciplinary investigation in Saltzstein.
Appelman said at least two of Saltzstein’s former clients hope to see him prosecuted, and he plans to present evidence to Edina police in coming weeks. In Appelman’s view, there is enough to merit a charge of felony theft-by-swindle.
Saltzstein, who did not participate in the OLPR’s disciplinary proceedings, could not be reached for comment.
In addition to losing his law license, Saltzstein has been sued four times this year over unpaid debts, including an outstanding $27,000 credit card balance.
Last year, according to Hennepin County District Court records, Saltzstein pleaded guilty to a fifth-degree drug charge for attempting to pass a forged Adderall prescription. He received a 60-day sentence and immediate furlough for treatment but, in April, was sentenced to 30 days over a probation violation.
In a second decision handed down Wednesday, the Supreme Court delivered much better news to a disciplined attorney.
Rejecting the recommendations of both a panel from the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board and the OLPR, the court reinstated the law license of Duluth attorney Andrew Louis Stockman.
Formerly a solo practitioner with a focus on personal injury and workers’ compensation cases, Stockman was originally suspended for a minimum of five months back in 2012 over trust-account shortages and an assortment of client-related misconduct claims, most involving lack of diligence or failure to communicate with clients.
While Stockman was serving that suspension, the OLPR submitted a supplemental petition for additional client-related misconduct and unauthorized practice of law. In 2014, the Supreme Court tacked on an additional six months on to Stockman’s suspension.
Since then, two lawyer board panels recommended that Stockman’s petition for reinstatement be denied because, although he jumped through all the procedural hoops, he had not shown by clear and convincing evidence that he had undergone the requisite “moral change.”
In a 20-page decision, the Supreme Court dubbed that decision clearly erroneous.
Among other things, the panel faulted Stockman for waiting three years to take a trust-account CLE course, one of its recommendations from the original disciplinary proceeding.
But unlike the panel, the court said that delay shouldn’t count against Stockman because unrebutted testimony showed that the class had not been offered for “two to three years” prior to his successful enrollment.
The court also credited positive testimony from two lawyers at Vukelich & Malband, the Duluth firm where Stockman has worked continuously as a legal assistant during his suspension.
William Wernz, an expert on legal ethics and a former director of the OLPR, said it is rare for the Supreme Court to reject findings on moral change, which is the final and often most problematic hurdle that lawyers face when seeking reinstatement.
“In the great majority of the cases, the court goes along with the panel and the director,” Wernz noted.
That said, Wernz pointed to two prior decisions — In re: Dedefo (2010) and In re Kadrie (1998) — in which the court similarly rejected panel recommendations against reinstatement.
Susan Humiston, the director of the OLPR, speculated that the lengthy duration of Stockman’s suspension — which is now in its fourth year — may have figured into the court’s decision to reinstate him to practice.
“Ultimately, it’s their responsibility and they can weigh the considerations as they like,” said Humiston. “But I think it becomes difficult for the court when a person has been out much longer [than the minimum length of suspension] and I wonder if that doesn’t have an impact.”